A couple weeks ago I attended a virtual reunion of my first-grade class. So many of my memories of those formative years revolve around baseball, taking a class field trip to the Topps Baseball Card factory and leaving with scores of uncut sheets of baseball cards, listening to the Orioles on my Spy Pen Radio in Mr. Schmick’s class, and checking out “Birds on the Wing,” the story of the 1966 World Champion Orioles, 33 times from our elementary school library.
By junior year my baseball memories had upgraded to watching the Orioles practice informally on my high school baseball field during my lunch hour, while they were on strike and locked out of Memorial Stadium. The strike led to a bizarre playoff scenario that led to the only time in Major League Baseball history that a sub-.500 team made it to the playoffs, with the Royals earning a berth based on their 30-23 record in the second half of the season, despite a 50-53 record overall.
What the Rockies wouldn’t give for a playoff scenario like that. In a season when they had the best record in baseball at 11-3 and were an even 15-15 at the halfway point, they’re clinging to the faintest of hopes to make a field of 16 playoff teams heading into the final weekend of the regular season.
As the Daily Planet went to press Friday afternoon, the Rockies were three games out of an improbable playoff spot with four games to play and four teams between them and a return to Rocktober. They’re also six games under .500 and setting their sights on joining the Royals in the exclusive sub-.500 club.
Realists figure the season is over, but don’t count the players among that lot. Where there is math there is hope.
“Until somebody says that we're not, we believe we're still in the hunt,” said super-utility man Garrett Hampson after Tuesday’s loss to the Giants kept the Rockies from their first three-game winning streak in a month. “We’re running out of games; we've got a six more now. We've won six in a row before, so we could do it.”
Two weeks ago, it all hinged on a nine-game homestand for the Rockies best chance at rising in the ranks and making an expanded 2020 playoff field. It started with LoDo Magic at its essence as Charlie Blackmon clubbed a walk-off grand slam in the first game of the homestand to beat the Angels and start a run that could rival the fabled 21-1 stretch that took the Rockies to their only World Series in 2007.
“We've had good starting pitching as of late,” Blackmon told the Daily Planet later in the homestand, offering his inside insight on how the Rockies could finish the season playing .800 ball for the first time since they were 12-6 and Chuck Nazty was hitting .472, an 0-for-4 removed from his highwater mark of .500, to make the playoffs. “Seems like guys are putting up zeros most of the time. We've seen the bullpen throw really well, at times, and our offense is grinding. We have all the pieces we need to do well in each area, together at the same time, and that's what we were doing. We were 12-6 there, and we're capable of doing it again.”
The qualifiers — “of late,” “at times,” and even “grinding” — are the tell. While grinding is a laudable characteristic of a team and its players fighting through adversity, it’s always a race against time when you’re riding a grinding engine to the finish line in pursuit of the well-oiled machine of a team like the Dodgers, whose dust leaves a bitter aftertaste for the grinders that eat it.
You’d be hard-pressed to fill a highlight reel from the homestand — and, no, Albert Pujols’ 660th home run tying Willie Mays for fifth all-time doesn’t count. In the wake of the walk-off slam, give a couple clips to Antonio Senzatela, who held the A’s to one run in a complete game victory Sept. 15 and stopped the Dodgers from completing a four game sweep by holding them to a lone run in his 6 1/3 innings on the hill, as Josh Fuentes exploded offensively in last Sunday’s Coors Field finale. And save space for Ramiel Tapia, who sparked the Rockies by legging a leadoff single into a double against Clayton Kershaw in the penultimate tilt with the Dodgers, stealing third and scoring on a Nolan Arenado grounder to create a first inning run, which sadly, was the only Rockies only run of the day.
“That was Tap using his legs for sure,” manager Bud Black said of his left fielder’s newfound ability to manufacture runs. “He ran hard out of the box, made a good hard turn, recognized that there was a really good chance to get to second, and went for it. Then he had a pretty good lead, picked up some tendencies from Kershaw, got his break, and made a good aggressive (steal). These are things we do behind the scenes with certain pitchers, and it worked out.”
But the Rockies went 3-6 on the homestand, securing a losing record at Coors Field, and setting up the impossible for an eight-game, seven-day, season-ending road trip. They gave up on Wade Davis on the final Friday at home after watching him yield a homer and a triple to the first batters he faced in back-to-back appearances, and they saw Nolan Arenado’s season come to a close a couple days later after the seven-time Gold Glover played through a left shoulder injury throughout the shortened season.
“It was just a mutual agreement after we got the MRI yesterday,” Arenado told the Planetwhen he went on the 10-day IL with seven days left in the season. “I thought it was best to start the rehab process right away, especially with where the team is. It's kind of unraveled just a little bit.”
He’s been playing through pain and soreness, and it’s shown up at the plate, where he finished the season hitting .253, an even 40 points below his career average.
But where there is math there is hope, so it’s worth pursuing the calculus of Arenado making a Rocktober return if the team made the playoffs.
“I would try,” he admitted to the Planet. “That playoff scenario is pretty tough. But that'd be an unbelievable thing, to find a way to get into the playoffs and have a comeback.”
His teammates — taking a cue from “Monty Python and The Holy Grail” — insist they’re not dead yet. They’ve gone 3-2 since Nolan’s early exit, including the stirring victory over the Dodgers, a German Marquez mound gem the next day as they beat the Giants 7-2 behind a balanced offensive onslaught on the San Francisco Bay.
And then came Trevor Story, closer Daniel Bard and an 11th inning come-from-behind victory to keep math alive. In the bottom of the 10th Thursday, with a man on third and one out, Bud Black took Blackmon out of right field, brought Daniel Murphy in at first, turned Fuentes into a fifth infielder and pulled them all in close to keep the winning run from scoring.
Evan Longoria launched a 108 mph rocket between third and short, where Story — one of three left-side infielders — snared it on an in between hop that knocked him to the ground where he, threw and nailed nemesis Alex Dickerson at the plate to save the game.
“You bring the infield in, you try to cover as many spots on the infield as you can to prevent the ground ball from beating you,” Black explained to the Planet. “You bring the outfielders in a little tight, you space them where our spray charts think that the hitter is going to hit the ball. It's something we practice in spring training often. Stu (Cole, infield coach) does a great job with the guys and the guys are very intent and focused in practice in spring training on that play. I don't know whether Stu hits the ball as hard as Longoria did today to try to mirror that play, but just goes to show you what a tremendous talent Trev is to make that play.”
A half inning later, Tapia lifted a sacrifice fly to plate Hampson with the game-winner, and Daniel Bard — who’d been out of baseball for seven years — pitched a career-high 2 2/3 scoreless innings for the win.
“It was a team victory,” Story said of the solid start from Chi Chi Rodriguez, the bullpen in an “at times” moment, the timely hitting that’s eluded Colorado’s slumbering lumber all season, and the use of all but one bench player. “Pretty good at bats. Really good defense, and a play we practiced in spring training. This is one to be proud of, for sure.”
If I sounded like a realist, here’s hoping I end up as one with egg on my face, egg in my ears and egg dripping to lubricate my grinding gears.
Editor’s note: The Rockies played three games against Arizona Friday and Saturday, and finish the season Sunday against the Diamondbacks at 1:10 p.m. Results of the four games were not immediately available before press time Friday afternoon.